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Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

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Diamond in the DirtDirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Spin DoctorateGossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Kid ChaosStill William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

Permission to BlandSomething Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Succulent Selections – for Sizzlingly Serebral Splanchnoscopophilists…

Tempting a Titan – a further exclusive extract from Titans of Transgression (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Dirty Story: A further account of the life and adventures of Arthur Abdel Simpson, Eric Ambler (Bodley Head 1967)

Like many other readers, I finished Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962) wanting to hear more from its neurotic anti-hero Arthur Simpson, the Anglo-Egyptian petty crook who got caught up in a big jewel-robbery in Istanbul. He was a highly engaging character not despite his many flaws but because of them.

Five years later Ambler duly supplied more of Arthur in the novel Dirty Story. I finished it feeling very disappointed: this is a book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed so bad if I hadn’t already read The Light of Day. But I had and I could see that Ambler had ruined one of his best characters by putting him in entirely the wrong setting. Arthur is a man of the city; Dirty Story puts him into the African jungle. He’s not a man of action; Dirty Story makes him into an armed mercenary. The incongruity is too big, unlike his involuntary transformation from petty crook to jewel-robber in The Light of Day. That incongruity was entertaining and made you feel sympathy for him. But Arthur as a mercenary?

No, it doesn’t work. Nor does the twist whereby, as in The Light of Day, he makes it out with a whole skin and a new ambition. But the book started promisingly. Arthur is back in Greece and wants a new passport. He gets into big debt to pay for it and has to work off the debt by becoming an assistant on a pornographic film. Helped by a thuggish and unstable Frenchman called Goutard, he recruits actresses for the film from Madame Irma, the madame who appeared in The Light of the Day. But Goutard tries to lure the girls away to a new brothel and Madame Irma is understandably annoyed. She denounces both Arthur and Goutard to the Greek police and they have to flee the country together on a ship.

Arthur is back in the soup again: he’s lost his home in Athens and his attractive young Greek wife and has no prospect of getting them back. After all, he has no real right to live in Greece and no real nationality: that was why he was trying to buy himself a new passport. He and Goutard end up in Djibouti, where the authorities give them a week to get out or get into big trouble. And now there’s one last chance for Ambler to supply a worthy sequel to The Light of Day. Arthur is wondering what he can do next:

Aden was only one-hundred-and-fifty miles away by sea across the Bab el Mandeb strait. I thought that if I could get to Aden I might be able to land a job as a steward on one of the boats that stopped there. They didn’t know me in Aden, and anyway it was a busier port than Djibouti. I had no union card, of course, or seaman’s papers, but I thought that some of the cargo liner captains might not be too particular about that if they happened to be short-handed. (Book I, ch. 6)

Who knows what interesting adventures he could have had working as a steward on a holiday liner? He could have got involved in smuggling or a ship-wreck, become an accidental hero, even had another run-in with the jewel-robbers of The Light of Day. But he doesn’t become a steward and none of that happens. Instead, Goutard, a veteran of wars in Algeria and Indo-China, helpfully finds him work as a mercenary for a mining firm in an unnamed African country.

Arthur has given him a false impression of his own military experience, you see: “Of course I am not, strictly speaking, an old soldier, but because of my father I sometimes feel like one.” The job doesn’t seem too bad: he’s told it will involve “showing some stupid macaques how to secure and protect a strip of land” (macaque, literally a kind of monkey, is coarse French slang for a member of the Black Community). In fact, it will involve a lot more than that and although Arthur won’t have to fight, he will have to operate a radio while bullets are flying.

Because he’s operating a radio, he gets a chance to betray his employers to a rival mining company. By then, he isn’t a good character any more. He is out of his milieu and there are no fascinating glimpses into an exotic culture and its history, as there had been in The Light of Day. I finished the book no longer caring about Arthur and no longer wanting to hear more about him. Dirty Story may have inspired Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974), which is also about mercenaries, mining and double-crosses in Africa, but The Dogs of War is a far better book. Forsyth doesn’t have Ambler’s sophistication or subtlety, but he can tell a rattling good yarn and the technical details of The Dogs of War are much more interesting.

So read Dogs, not Dirty. If you liked The Light of Day, I doubt that you’ll like Dirty Story. I certainly didn’t and I’d prefer to see it as an apocryphal Gospel, purporting to be by Arthur but really by an imposter. But there are glimpses of what might have been here and in 2017 there’s even more pathos in the bathos of a dialogue right at the beginning. Arthur is trying to get a British passport and is being interviewed by “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens”:

“This states that your name is Arthur Abdel Simpson, that you were born in Cairo, Egypt, on October the sixteenth, nineteen hundred and ten.”

“I know what it states.”

“It also says that you are the son of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Arthur Thomas Simpson of the Army Service Corps and his wife Mrs Rhita Simpson whose maiden name is given as Rhita Fahir.”

“What of it? My mother was Egyptian.”

He put the photostat down. “Quite so. But she was not married to your father.”

“That is a despicable lie.” I was still calm. “The certificate was signed by the Adjutant of my father’s regiment.”

“No doubt. Possibly he didn’t read what he was signing very carefully.” Sneering all the time. “Possibly he didn’t read it at all. As Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant your father probably gave him a great many papers to sign.”

“My father was an officer and a gentleman,” I protested angrily.

“He became an officer certainly.” (Book I, ch. 1)

Note the first line of dialogue: Arthur was born in 1910. If he were a real person, the storm-and-stress of his life would be long over by now. I doubt that he would have made it past the 1980s. Indeed, you could say he was killed off in Dirty Story. But he still lives and breathes in The Light of Day and readers must still finish that book wanting to hear more from him. I haven’t re-read it since finishing Dirty Story and I’ll be interested to see what this apocryphal Gospel has done to my appreciation of the real thing. Improved it, I hope.

Spin Doctorate

Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

Kid Chaos

Still William, Richmal Crompton (1925)

An early and excellent entry in the William canon. Like P.G. Wodehouse and J.P. Martin, Richmal Crompton is an author who inspires me to ration myself. I stop myself reading too much at one sitting, because it’s easy to be greedy when the pleasure of reading is so great. But it’s the prose and the playfulness of Wodehouse and Martin that are pleasurable. Their writing is so light and inventive that it makes me feel happy just to read it.

Crompton is different: her prose isn’t particularly good, but her characters and humour certainly are. As I said in my review of William in Trouble (1927), she’s very good at capturing the psychology of children. She’s also very good at capturing dialogue and bringing characters to life by the way they speak:

“So this is little William,” said Uncle Frederick, putting his hand on William’s head. “And how is little William?”

William removed his head from Uncle Frederick’s hand in silence then said distantly:

“V’ well, thank you.”

That’s from “William’s Truthful Christmas”, in which William is inspired by a Christmas sermon to “cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy” and speak only the truth. The consequences are predictable: William does what he always does and introduces chaos into the well-ordered and well-regulated adult world. He might be small in stature, but he’s big in influence.

So is Violet Elizabeth Bott, the angelic, lisping and iron-willed six-year-old who makes her debut here in “The Sweet Little Girl in White”. William has no defence against her ability to conjure tears at will, as she does in that story, or against her threat to “thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick”, which first appears in “William the Match-Maker”. But if William can’t control Violet Elizabeth, nor can his family control him. After he’s plunged his beautiful elder sister Ethel into more embarrassment with his match-making, Ethel makes a plaintive request:

“Mother,” she said, “can’t we do anything about William? Can’t we send him to an orphanage or something?”

“No, darling,” said Mrs. Brown calmly. “You see, for one thing, he isn’t an orphan.”

“But he’s so awful!” said Ethel. “He’s so unspeakably dreadful!”

“Oh, no, Ethel,” said Mrs. Brown, still darning placidly. “Don’t say things like that about your little brother. I sometimes think that when William’s just had his hair cut and got a new suit on, he looks quite sweet!”

Anyone who knows William will also know that “sweet” is not the mot juste, but Mrs. Brown always tries to see the best in her children. She represented calm and William represented chaos in 1925, when this book was first published, and they still represented calm and chaos forty-five years later in 1970, when William the Lawless, the last William book, was published. They never aged and their world never took on any more solidity. Geography and landscape didn’t interest Crompton: character and dialogue did. William is one of the best characters in children’s literature and he’s at his best here.

But today he’s no longer at his most popular. That’s why I’m glad that my copy of Still William is older than I am. My battered hard-back was awarded as a prize in 1951 to “Michael Weatherill” at the Jesmond Road School, overseen by the “West Hartlepool Education Committee”. He won it for “Perseverance”, which is very appropriate. William perseveres, always trying to extract fun and excitement from an often difficult world. Fun isn’t guaranteed, but excitement always is. Without William, life would be duller for both his fictional family and his fiction’s fans.

Something Fresh, P.G. Wodehouse (1915)

Another book to remind you that only the mediocre are always at their best. At his best, Wodehouse is sublime, but it was impossible for such a prolific author to always be at his best. And particularly not when he was still learning his craft. This novel is the first devoted to Blandings Castle and its eccentric master Lord Emsworth, but the title promises something that isn’t delivered.

The style isn’t fresh: it’s clogged with Victorian facetiousness. Wodehouse hasn’t taken to the literary wing, as he would in the Ukridge and Mulliner stories. He hasn’t learnt how to mix simplicity with silliness and cerebrality, as he would in the Jeeves stories. Jeeves definitely isn’t my favourite Wodehouse character. I’d even say I dislike him, but some of the Jeeves stories are undoubtedly classics and they’re very enjoyable to read. Perhaps Wodehouse was at his best in a short story. I’ve certainly given up on some of his novels – this one, for example. Lord Emsworth is eccentric here but not amusing. When he carries off a valuable scarab by mistake from an American millionaire’s collection, it’s a plot-device, not something that seems natural.

And although the Efficient Baxter appears here too, he’s a shadow of his future and formidable self. The Empress of Blandings isn’t even a shadow. At least, I saw no hint of her presence in what I read and there was no mention of her on the back cover. Blandings without the Empress is like strawberries without cream. And this novel is like straw without berries. It’s dull, contrived and unamusing, Wodehouse at far below his best.

Succulent Selection #1

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. — From George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1986)


Succulent Selection #2

‘Did you go and see the prisoners hanged yesterday?’ said Syme.

‘I was working,’ said Winston indifferently. ‘I shall see it on the flicks, I suppose.’

‘A very inadequate substitute,’ said Syme. […]

‘It was a good hanging,’ said Syme reminiscently. ‘I think it spoils it when they tie their feet together. I like to see them kicking. And above all, at the end, the tongue sticking right out, and blue — a quite bright blue. That’s the detail that appeals to me.’ — From George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1986)


Succulent Selection #3

Many of the people searching through the haystacks were young, enlisted guys … 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all your private records. In the course of their daily work they stumble across something that is completely unrelated to their work, for example an intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation but they’re extremely attractive. So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show a co-worker. And their co-worker says: “Oh, hey, that’s great. Send that to Bill down the way.” And then Bill sends it to George, George sends it to Tom and sooner or later this person’s whole life has been seen by all of these other people. Anything goes, more or less. — Edward Snowden on voyeurism at the NSA


Succulent Selection #4

Palestinians’ sex talks were always a hot item to pass on from one person in the unit to the other, for a good laugh. One person would call over another to come listen. Or some other entertaining talks. For example, “funny” medical conditions like haemorrhoids. It’s part of the unit’s morale. You also pass on photos for laughs that belong to targets, or just to Palestinians. Just photos, family photos, and the guys have a laugh when the children are ugly. There are also private photos, for example, that couples took for one another. — Whistleblower on voyeurism at Unit 8200


Titans of Transgression: Incendiary Interviews with Eleven Ultra-Icons of Über-Extremity, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Samuel P. Salatta (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)

A further exclusive extract from this soon-to-be-published key compendium of core counter-culturalicity…

READERS’ ADVISORY: Interview extract contains strong language and explicit reference to perverted sexual practices strictly forbidden by Mother Church. Proceed at your own risk.

[…]

Miriam Stimbers: How did you meet David Slater [simul-scribe of seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture]?

David Kerekes: Well, it’s a fairly complicated story. In the Gypsy community we’ve always felt a close affinity with other oppressed minorities and we do our best to watch their backs. In 1982 or thereabouts, I was part of a Gypsy crew who lent a helping hand to a gay brothel in Stockport that was having a few problems with homophobic neighbours. My blood still boils when I think about it, to be honest. Totally out of order, the fucking neighbours were. I mean, the brothel was discreet, the clients were no bother to anyone, but these homophobes thought they had the right to stick their fucking noses in and disrupt the brothel’s business, hassle the clients, stuff like that. Fucking cunts. Anyway, to cut a long story short, me and the rest of the Gypsy crew sorted the neighbours out and then the proprietor of the brothel asked us if we’d like blow-jobs on the house, like, to thank us for our help, even though we hadn’t done it out of any thought of reward. I mean, it was just solidarity with a fellow minority, the sort of thing the Gypsy community has always been passionate about.

Miriam Stimbers: And you said yes to the blow-jobs?

David Kerekes: Well, me and a couple of my mates in the crew did. I’m always up for a new experience, as it were! And that’s how I met Dave Slater. ’Coz he was working in the brothel, as one of the rent-boys.

Miriam Stimbers: And he gave you the free blow-job?

David Kerekes: Yeah. And it was a fucking good one too. Not the best I’ve ever had, like, but in the top twenty, easily.

Miriam Stimbers: And you got chatting and discovered your shared passion for corpse-contemplation?

David Kerekes: Well, it’s natural you should think that, but no, not right then. Not on that first occasion. Dave didn’t say much, just got down to work, as it were. But as I said, it was a fucking good blow-job, so about a fortnight later, when I was in the Stockport area on business and had an hour or two to kill, I popped in at the brothel and asked for another one off him. Another blow-job, I mean, off Dave. I was ready to pay the going rate, like, but the proprietor recognized me at once and said it was on the house again.

Miriam Stimbers: And this time you got chatting with Dave Slater?

David Kerekes: Exactly. We got chatting after he’d given me the blow-job and discovered our shared passion for corpse-contemplation, as you so nicely put it. And the next time Dave was over in Liverpool, he got in touch and we had a few pints. It all sort of blossomed from there. We started meeting regularly to watch death-film and corpse-vids together. Most times, Dave would give me a blow-job at the end of the session. I mean, you build up a lot of tension watching corpse-vids, so a blow-job’s just the thing to unwind with. Very relaxing. And sometimes he’d give me a blow-job during the session too, if he noticed I was getting tense as I contemplated a particularly fine corpse or watched a particularly abhorrent death-scene, like. It was fucking funny at times, Dave trying to watch the screen at the same time as he had a nob in his gob!

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners...* Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes

Warming up for corpse-contemplation: Kerekes (right) and Slater (left)


Miriam Stimbers: And that’s how you came to write Killing for Culture?

David Kerekes: Yeah. Out of tiny oaks tall acorns grow! If me and my Gypsy mates hadn’t helped out that gay brothel in Stockport, I’d probably never have met Dave and probably Killing for Culture would never have been written. I’d had something in mind along those lines, but Dave’s help really was invaluable. Not just his knowledge and his contacts, but his very special relaxation techniques! I estimate that I received about two hundred blow-jobs, maybe two-fifty, off him in the course of research. When I saw that first review calling it a “seminal snuff-study”, I thought, “Little do you fucking know!” Dave was always on at me to bum him too, but I didn’t fancy that. I mean, obviously, I’m not homophobic or owt, but bumming a bloke is a big step up from getting a blow-job off him. But he still kept on at me to bum him.

Miriam Stimbers: Did you ever give in?

David Kerekes: Well, I used to say to him, “Dave, I’ll bum you after we’ve seen a snuff-movie together!”

Miriam Stimbers: So have you ever bummed Dave Slater?

David Kerekes (laughing): Well, I’ll say this, like. I’ve bummed Dave Slater as many times as I’ve seen a snuff-movie!

Miriam Stimbers: And how many times have you seen a snuff-movie?

David Kerekes (laughing again): As many times as I’ve bummed Dave Slater!

[…]

Miriam Stimbers: Who would you say has been the most important influence on your life?

David Kerekes: People often ask me this and, you know, they expect me to say that it was William Burroughs or Immanuel Kant or Sam Salatta or someone like that. And yeah, they have all been very important influences on me, but the most important influence on me was someone else. Not anyone famous, but someone very, very influential nonetheless.

Miriam Stimbers: Who was it?

David Kerekes: It was my Mom, Mirima Kerekes. People often say to me that they find me an unusually honest and ethical person, which is obviously a nice thing to hear, don’t get me wrong, but I take absolutely no fucking credit for it. It’s all down to my Mom. She brought me up to be passionate about three things. First, pride in my Gypsy heritage. Second, strict adherence to a painfully honest ethical code. Third – and I’ll put it in her own words, because I can hear her saying it to me now – “Don’t never never never act like a communist, Davy, because that would be like spitting in your poor Momma’s face.” And I’ve done my fucking best, I hope, to keep those three things at the forefront of my mind during both my working life and my private life.

Miriam Stimbers: Just to explain for people who don’t know – your mother was a refugee from communist Romania, right?

David Kerekes: Yes, absolutely right. She left Romania in the 1950s after the Russian invasion. Fled from there, rather, just ahead of the fucking tanks and the firing-squads. And she wasn’t a fan of communism, to put it mildly!

Miriam Stimbers: And what would, quote, acting like a communist, unquote, entail?

David Kerekes: Basically, she meant any kind of behaviour that violated individual autonomy, that placed the collective above the individual. The sort of fucking thing you saw all the time under communism, most obviously with the secret police. You know, the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, the Securitate in Romania, and so on.

Miriam Stimbers: Torture, rigged trials, slave-labour camps, things like that?

David Kerekes: Yes, obviously that kind of thing, but other stuff comes under it too. I mean, if you think of the Edward Snowden revelations, the NSA over in the States and GCHQ here in the UK are behaving like communists, by my Mom’s criteria.

Miriam Stimbers: Surveillance, spying, treating the entire population as suspects?

David Kerekes: Exactly. After her experiences in Romania, my Mom hated that kind of thing, absolutely fucking hated it. And if I ever participated in anything like that, then I would be, in her words, “spitting in your poor Momma’s face.” So I don’t participate in it. Full stop.

[…]

Interview extract © David Kerekes / Dr Miriam B. Stimbers / TransVisceral Books 2017

Noxious Note: In November 2017 the Harris Central Library in Stockport, Lancashire, will be holding an exhibition engaging core issues around corpse-vids, corpse-contemplation, and the corpse-contemplation community. Sponsored by the Halifax Bank and entitled “Not Just for Necrophiles: A Toxic Tribute to Killing for Culture”, the exhibition is designed to accompany the TransVisceral Books publication of the same name. As part of the exhibition, David Kerekes will be delivering a keynote lecture entitled “Coming Out of the Cyber-Coffin: Necrophile Pride in the Internet Age”, accompanied by a keynote lecture by David Slater entitled “[the warped little fucker hasn’t even written the title of his lecture so far, so there’s fuck-all chance that he’ll get the whole thing done in time. i’ll get the title to you if a fucking miracle happens. – d.k.]”


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Slay, Slay, Slay (Vot Yoo Vont to Slay)
Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

Do and DieThe Reason Why, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1953) (posted at O.-o.-t.-Ü)

Liddell im WörterlandLiddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Lunar or LaterMoon: From 4.5 billion years ago to the present: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David M. Harland (Haynes 2016)

Headlong into NightmareHeadlong Hall (1816) / Nightmare Abbey (1818)

Twisted TalesBiggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Stop the Brott – staying the serial slaying of a sanguinivorous psychoanalyst


• Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Here’s something I learned only recently: the Liddell of the Lexicon was the father of the Alice of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass fame. I knew her surname was Liddell and that she lived in Oxford, but the possible connection never occurred to me. Partly it must have been that the Lexicon is so soberly academic and Alice in Wonderland so surreally imaginative. But the connection is appropriate, because classical Greek would be the perfect language to translate Alice in Wonderland into. It has all the necessary richness and subtlety:

Sample from the Lexicon #1 (click for larger)

And the Greek script in its fully developed form, with minuscule letters and diacritics, is much more beautiful than the Roman alphabet. This lexicon is a bibliophile’s delight and it’s easy to download PDFs of the full edition. But I also own a physical copy of an abridgment of it. A real book has advantages over an electronic text. You don’t make happy discoveries by accident as easily with an e-text and you’re cut off from history when you’re reading from a screen. Liddell and Scott worked with paper:

Sample from the Lexicon #2 (click for larger)


Paper was also the medium for most of the poets, historians, philosophers and novelists whose words they define. But not for the most famous of all: Homer’s two great epics were originally composed and transmitted without pen or paper. They were products of the pre-literate Bronze Age, when poets and storytellers relied on memory, not manuscripts. A lot was lost with literacy, but civilization depends on it and this lexicon is one of the great monuments to the influence that Greek civilization still has on the world.

But rich and interesting as this book is, it has one big disadvantage: it’s bilingual (or trilingual if you count the Latin). As I pointed out in my review of a Larousse de Poche, monolingual dictionaries are best for learning a foreign language. If a word in Greek is defined in Greek, then “no officious English word intrud[es]”, as C.S. Lewis put it in Surprised by Joy (1955). Liddell and Scott were good enough scholars to have written entirely in Greek and I wish they had done so. There could have been two Lexicons, one translating Greek into English and one defining Greek in Greek.

No Latin dictionary is so famous as Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which probably and partly reflects the earthier and more utilitarian nature of Latin. But a Latin lexicon defining Latin in Latin would have been good too and something that Victorian scholars could easily have created.

Lunar or Later

Moon: From 4.5 billion years ago to the present: Owners’ Workshop Manual, David M. Harland (Haynes 2016)

It was a clever idea: to put out a guide to the Moon in the same format as one of Haynes’ famous car-maintenance manuals. And the execution matched the idea. This is a detailed and interesting history of selenological speculation and lunar exploration, all the way from the ancient Greeks to the Apollo missions and beyond.

Except that there hasn’t been much beyond the Apollo missions. As the book’s final page notes:

On 31 December 1999 National Public Radio in the United States asked Sir Arthur C. Clarke, renowned for forecasting many of the developments of the 20th century, whether anything had happened in the preceding 100 years that he never could have anticipated. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “The one thing that I never would have expected is that after centuries of wonder and imagination and aspiration, we would have gone to the Moon… and then stopped.” (“Postscript”, pg. 172)

And we’ve been stopped for some time. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, forty-three years after that “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind” in 1969. But David M. Harland ends on an optimistic note: he thinks that “The Moon is humanity’s future.” It will be our gateway to the rest of the solar system and perhaps even the stars.

But it will be more than just a gateway. There is still a lot we don’t understand about our nearest celestial neighbour and big surprises may still be in store. One thing we do now understand is that the scarred and pitted lunar surface got that way from the outside, not the inside. That is, the moon was bombarded with meteors, not convulsed by volcanoes. But that understanding, so obvious in hindsight, took a long time to reach and it was actually geologists, not astronomers, who promoted and proved it (ch. 5, “The origin of lunar craters”). It was the last big question to be settled before the age of lunar exploration began.

Previously scientists had looked at the Moon with their feet firmly on the ground; at the end of the 1950s, they began to send probes and robotic explorers. Harland takes a detailed look at what these machines looked like, how they worked and where they landed or flew. Then came the giant leap: the Apollo missions. They were an astonishing achievement: a 21st-century feat carried out with technology from the 1960s, as Harland puts it. Yet in one way they depended on technology much earlier than the 1960s: pen and paper. The missions relied on the equations set out in Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). Newton had wanted to explain, inter multa alia, why the Moon moved as it did.

By doing that, he also explained where a spacecraft would need to be aimed if it wanted to leave the Earth and go into orbit around the Moon. His was a great intellectual achievement just as the Apollo missions were a great technological achievement, but he famously said that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Harland begins the book with those giants: the earlier scientists and mathematicians who looked up in wonder at the Moon and tried to understand its mysteries. Apollonius, Hipparchus and Ptolemy were giants in the classical world; Galileo, Brahe and Kepler were giants in the Renaissance. Then came Newton and the men behind the Apollo missions.

Are there more giants to come? The Moon may be colonized by private enterprise, not by a government, so the next big names in lunar history may be those of businessmen, not scientists, engineers and astronauts. But China, India and Japan have all begun sending probes to the Moon, so their citizens may follow. Unless some huge disaster gets in the way, it’s surely only a matter of time before more human beings step onto the lunar surface. Even with today’s technology it will be a great achievement and more reason to marvel at the Apollo missions. And the Apollo photographs still look good today.

There are lots of those photographs here, with detailed discussion of the men and machines that allowed them to be taken. The Moon is a fascinating place and this is an excellent guide to what we’ve learned and why we need to learn more.